Improvising for a diva

3 05 2011

Front and center... My good good friend, the beautiful and talented Brenda, with some of her well-wishers for a safe and pleasant flight to Singapore!

AFTER LAST week’s potluck send-off dinner for my good good friend Brenda Aragon–Gallo, I think I can only cook for and in honor of someone who can sing Aaliyah’s “At Your Best” beautifully, and Angela Bofill’s “You Should Know By Now”…  perfectly.  No flats.  No sharps.  Just perfect pitch and a pull at the heartstrings.

"At her best"... I've always known that Brenda sings well. But it was different hearing it in person!!! She made me "re-discover" At Your Best and You Should Know By Now.

The evening was uncharacteristically hot and humid, and taking turns slaving over a hot stove was no joke.  But that’s the beauty of doing things for others, doing something for somebody really important and special.  You do it because it is the most natural thing to do.

The outsider that I am got invited – yet again – to another one of our company’s Finance group’s dinners.  I was meaning to really show up and bid my friend all the best on her move to Singapore but apparently, my reputation for coming up with a myriad of excuses had caught up with me.  Brenda and the very lovely Cindy had to stop by my office area – everyday! – to remind me of the party.  I could tell Brenda sensed my seeming aversion to even the possibility of a short-term commitment that she had to remind me of all those occasions I had already missed.  Her wedding to Darryl.  Her birthday.  The many other dinners she had organized.  The surprise send-off party she threw for Darryl.

Gosh, what kind of friend am I?  I didn’t want to add to that list anymore.  So in unequivocal terms, I finally assured Brenda and Cindy that I would be there.

Working in the kitchen with Vic, Alfie, Brenda, Cindy, and Dennis!

 

Alfie poses with the chefs.

Dinner was, as I had said, potluck.  I went over the (developing) menu and since I didn’t see any pasta dishes on it, I volunteered my fail-safe recipe for Angel Hair Pomodoro.  If you follow this blog, you must’ve read about my pomodoro in its many incarnations.  But for Brenda’s dinner party, I opted to whip up my version that calls for equal amounts of Hunt’s Diced Tomatoes and Hunt’s Stewed Tomatoes, lots of fresh garlic, lots of fresh basil, and unapologetic mounds of grated or shaved parmesan cheese.  I didn’t measure anything.  I went by look and feel.  The only thing missing was a couple of dashes of cayenne pepper.  I didn’t see any of it at the nearby grocer.

Picking through the really fragrant basil leaves we got from the newly opened supermarket nearby.

 

Basil and garlic, done! At this point, Alfie went to the kitchen thinking that the pomodoro was already done. You see, there's something about fresh basil, fresh garlic, and tomatoes in close proximity with each other that give off a melded bouquet of pomodoro goodness in the air! I smell it all the time!

 

The pomodoro sauce is done!

 

The angel hair was cooked mere seconds before serving! That's the key to delicious pasta, from stove to table in seconds! Tossed with the sauce and smothered with lots of cheese!

I would sometimes refer to this “whipping up” as improvisation.  It was something I first learned to do as a 10-year-old allowed to fuss about in the kitchen.  I had put mayonnaise on steamed fish long before I read about it in a cookbook.  And as I became older, I got influenced by chefs who would talk about making edible works of art from the bounty of the garden – or the pantry.  And I’m in awe of those who do improvise in the kitchen, not allowing themselves to be totally enslaved by cups and measures and strict recipes.  And among all the many “$40-a-Day” episodes I had seen, I would always find moments when Rachael Ray would sigh, “What I would give for a kitchen right now,” at the sight of the freshest produce, to be the most memorable.

And Brenda’s send-off dinner did turn out to be a showcase of improvisations!  She made a huge platter of her now-signature Chicken Fajitas-cum-Lettuce Wraps that, while redolent with the essence of cumin (a fave!) alluding to its “South of the border” provenance, never fails to bring the Korean Sam Gyup Sal to mind.  I’ve always told Brenda how much I love the marinade she makes for her chicken.  Soaked and bathed in this mixture, the chicken pieces get infused with so much flavor, and develop the tenderness that is the perfect foil to the crunch of the stir-fried white onions and bell peppers that complete the filling.

A stolen shot of Brenda in the kitchen.

 

The undisputed queen of fajitas!

 

After the chicken is almost done, white onions and bell peppers are added to the sauté.

 

Chicken Fajitas with Lettuce Wraps, done!

 

Never wanting anything to go to waste, Brenda thought about serving my pasta's excess basil leaves on the side of her fajitas. It turned out to be a most aromatic, fragrant touch. By the way, the elegant mother of pearl inlay on the serving platter for the fajitas didn't escape Brenda's eyes.

A couple of other suprises to me that night were dishes “whipped up” by two guys!  Dennis’s Pork & Beans could make you do a 180-degree turn and forget the ones you’ve enjoyed from the can as a kid.  His homemade version was smoky and robust, strong flavors that belied the fall-off-the-bone tenderness of the pig trotters he used.  I ended up asking a lot of questions about his ingredients and preparation, and in the process picked the aromatic that held the flavors together – detectable enough to make me ask, “What is that?” but not strong as to arrest my palate.  It was oregano.  Cindy chimed in that I should try Dennis’s Kare-Kare.  Judging by his pork & beans?  Suffice it to say that I won’t put my own Kare-Kare besides his in a spread.

Dennis's Pork & Beans, a showstopper of slow-cooked goodness.

Vic, who graciously opened his house to us, made Buttered Shrimps.  But what made his dish so much more special, and unconventional I may add, was the unexpected splash of orange juice – in powder form, from a sachet.  And all the while I thought my own Corona Light Beer-and-Sprite concoction was something special!

Fresh shrimps!

 

Buttered shrimps, done!

 

There were also steamed blue crabs!

It felt good to be in the company of people who can find the beauty in the simplest of things and appreciate the value of time spent with those who matter to us.  People who breathe life to one of my own beliefs – dinner time is as much about the food as it is about the company.

Brenda, I miss you already my friend!  Cindy misses you too.  We hope to see you again soon!

Brenda and some of her shining, shimmering guests.

 

Brenda with Alvin

 

Is it time for Arbor Mist yet?

 

A really beautiful couple... Cindy & Dennis

 

Dennis and The Flash

 

Copyright © 2011 by eNTeNG  c”,)™©’s  MunchTime™©.  All rights reserved.

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4 responses

3 05 2011
Cindy

Thanks for the post eNTeNG. True! we all miss Brendz 😦

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4 05 2011
Darryl

good job enteng! Let’s continue this cook-out in SG. we have 1 already next week with Finance folks. Next time, let’s have one when you’re here. 🙂

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4 05 2011
brendz

wow, i’m overwhelmed.. super thanks enteng! 🙂 grabe miss ko na kayo. iniisip ko na lang na in a few days, you’ll be here na din. see you guys soon :)…

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13 05 2011
Partner

isn’t it ironic that you didn’t find any cayenne pepper for your pasta sauce and i have one just sitting here at my desk? 🙂

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